WAGNER: Der Ring des Nibelungen (complete) – Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Vienna State Opera Chorus/ Sir Georg Solti; Das Rheingold: George London (Wotan)/ Kirsten Flagstad (Fricka)/ Claire Watson (Freia)/ Set Svanholm (Loge)/ Waldemar Kmentt (Froh)/ Eberhard Wächter (Donner)/ Paul Kuen (Mime)/ Jean Madeira (Erda)/ Gustav Neidlinger (Alberich)/ Walter Kreppel (Fasolt)/ Kurt Böhme (Fafner)/ Oda Balsborg (Woglinde)/ Hetty Plümacher (Wellgunde)/ Ira Malaniuk (Flosshilde); Die Walküre: James King (Siegmund)/ Régine Crespin (Sieglinde)/ Gottlob Frick (Hunding)/ Hans Hotter (Wotan)/ Birgit Nilsson (Brünnhilde)/ Christa Ludwig (Fricka)/ Brigitte Fassbaender (Waltraute)/ Berit Lindholm (Helmwige)/ Helga Dernesch (Ortlinde)/ Vera Schlosser (Gerhilde)/ Helen Watts (Schwertleite)/ Vera Little (Siegrune)/ Claudia Hellmann (Rossweise)/ Marilyn Tyler (Grimgerde); Siegfried: Wolfgang Windgassen (Siegfried)/ Birgit Nilsson (Brünnhilde)/ Hans Hotter (Wanderer)/ Gerhard Stolze (Mime)/ Gustav Neidlinger (Alberich)/ Kurt Böhme (Fafner)/ Marga Höffgen (Erda)/ Joan Sutherland (Waldvogel); Götterdämmerung: Wolfgang Windgassen (Siegfried)/ Birgit Nilsson (Brünnhilde)/ Gottlob Frick (Hagen)/ Gustav Neidlinger (Alberich)/ Claire Watson (Gutrune)/ Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Gunther)/ Christa Ludwig (Waltraute)/ Lucia Popp (Woglinde)/ Gwyneth Jones (Wellgunde)/ Maureen Guy (Flosshilde)/ Helen Watts (Erste Norn)/ Grace Hoffman (Zweite Norn)/ Anita Välkki (Dritte Norn) – Decca Pure Audio Blu-ray 4786748 (1 disc), 14 hours & 35 minutes [Distr. by Universal] *****:

The header says it all. This is a Ring that almost didn’t make it, the largest undertaking of any record company at that point in history, with an improbable conductor at the helm, at the start of his career. There was nothing to indicate that Solti was the man for the job, no real established Wagnerian pedigree, and in fact he was greeted with skepticism in many quarters considering the talent pool of conductors available at the time. But visionary producer John Culshaw had faith in the young maestro, and engineer Gordon Parry capture in blazing stereo one of the most amazing casts ever assembled; indeed it would be impossible to gather such a group today. Recorded from 1959 to 1966, each release won a Grand Prix du Disque and the entire cycle was bestowed a Grammy award and the Dutch Edison award, and many others also. The Vienna Philharmonic by that time had recaptured its pre-war glory, and plays like ones possessed, sporting a fabulous tone and magnificent brass. The added effects that are supposed to portray a realistic stage presence might sound a little contrived today, but not by much—they still pack a powerful punch. [Special markings were made on the soundstage for the various singers to give appropriate spatial placement. The stereo works fairly well using pseudo-surround decoding such as ProLogic IIx or equivalent…Ed.]

This is still the best available Ring if you are having only one. The sound was always great, and the various incarnations to this point have kept the sonic tradition intact. It is not the last word in Ring recordings as there is simply too much to be found in Wagner’s massive masterpiece for any one effort to garner, but it’s closer than any other. I still want a surround sound option (see Janowski and Gergiev), but the vocal opulence of this set is likely to remain unsurpassed forever. And now with the most up-to-date sound ever issued, and on only one disc, if you can believe it, this becomes a mandatory purchase for all Wagnerians and classical music lovers in general. I would even go so far as to say, since you can get this for an unbelievable $70-$90, that if you do not own a Blu-ray player, it would be worth buying a cheap one just for this set!

The essential album of the year, coming at the very beginning…

—Steven Ritter